International Law

How Human Rights Can Now Be Protected in Ethiopia

When one thinks of Ethiopia, on the positive side, there has been economic development in recent years that compares favorably to its neighbors. However, the picture would not be complete without acknowledging the systematic disrespect for individual human rights.

With the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the country's next prime minister will have the opportunity review his predecessor's actions and perhaps acknowledge that wealth means little when the rule of law can be misapplied to attack anyone critical of the government.

Prime Minister Meles' regime has been brutally backed by government security forces that have committed murder, torture and numerous other human rights abuses. Since 2009, many violations of fundamental human rights have occurred under the color of law for the alleged purpose of fighting "terrorism." The term "terrorism" seems to encompass anyone who is or may potentially become a thorn in the side of the Ethiopian government.

Although as a sovereign state, Ethiopia has the right to protect itself from legitimate threats to its security, including terrorism, this is not a license to commit atrocities under sanction of law. Prime Minister Meles' death is an ideal transitional time for the international community to drive that point home.

Unfortunately, the United States and the European Union consider the current regime to be an ally, turning a blind eye to human rights abuses while helping to fund the Ethiopian government. If strings are not attached to continued funding, it is safe to assume that Acting Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as Meles' successor will do little or nothing to reform the regime if he should retain power.

International financial and military support for Ethiopia's government should be tied to fundamental human rights reforms.

Key conditions should include:

(1) the repeal of the 2009 anti-terrorism law and replacement with a concise statute that focuses on actual terrorists instead of dissidents;

(2) release with blanket amnesty for all political prisoners;

(3) investigation and prosecution of those who have violated human rights, including prompt extradition to the International Criminal Court upon request;

(4) unlimited access to non-political prisoners by NGOs like Doctors Without Borders plus the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to protect detainees' health; and

(5) substantial legal reform to ensure protection of individual civil liberties by impartial rule of law.

Given its history, Ethiopia should be applauded for the fact that the transition of power appears to be occurring by lawful succession rather than by coup. Now is the time for the nation to take the next step by expanding the rule of law to protect individual human rights.

Recommended Reading

Ethiopian PM death 'opportunity' for change: rights groups, Ahram Online (Aug. 24, 2012)

Ethiopia's Meles Remembered For Development, Abuses, VOA (Aug. 21, 2012)

Ethiopia's Long-Time Ruler Dies, NPR (Aug. 21, 2012)

Why Are All Ethiopian Eyes on Brussels?, Human Rights Watch (July 19, 2012)